Iconic Barossa winemaker Peter Lehmann, whose work with the Australian wine industry spanned more than 60 years, has died. He was 82.
Chief executive of Peter Lehmann Wines, Jeff Bond, said Lehmann was “in reasonably good health, particularly for a man in his eighties”, but had been undergoing dialysis. He had undergone surgery earlier this week but is understood to have recovered well from that.
“Any passing is a shock, especially with someone of Peter's stature and status in our company, as well as the industry and the region here. He was a much loved figure,” Bond said.
Known for his wit and mischievous charm, Lehmann was a fierce advocate of Barossa grape growers, insisting time and again that “wines are made in the vineyard, not the boardroom”.
Peter Lehmann Wines was established in 1979 primarily as a rescue mission for grape growers facing ruin. When Lehmann was winemaker and manager at Saltram Wines, he famously refused to follow instructions to stop buying fruit from Barossa growers to whom he had given his word. The move was one of several that helped establish Lehmann as a legend in the region.
“Peter was a champion of the region, of the Barossa. When everybody thought the Barossa Valley floor was good for growing cabbages, Peter defended it to the hilt," Bond said.
“He helped put the Barossa on the map, not only in Australia, but internationally.”
Today, Peter Lehmann Wines has a network of around 140 growers which supply fruit for the company's range of more than 40 wines.
The Sydney Morning Herald wine critic and author Huon Hooke said Lehmann's loyalty inspired the same from his peers.
“Peter was the kind of guy who would stand up for what he believed no matter what,” Hooke said.
“And Barossa growers stood up for him as well. When he needed their help, such as when he floated the company in 1993, they bought shares. A lot couldn't afford much but they bought as many as they could afford.”
Hooke said Lehmann’s integrity was just one of many traits that made Lehmann "a very rare kind of person".
"He wasn't famous for creating a single great wine ... it was all the man himself. The leadership, and the spirit of the Barossa Valley," Hooke said.
"Long before regionalism was talked about in wine in Australia, he was a regionalist. He was very proud of the Barossa long before anyone else gave a damn about it."
Hooke said Lehmann's unique combination of larrikinism and uncanny intelligence often caught business associates by surprise.
"He wasn't highly educated, he wasn't a trained winemaker, he wasn't trained in business. He just learnt on the job and he learnt well," Hooke said.
"He was a terribly, terribly naughty guy. He loved playing jokes on people ... But behind that was an incredibly astute and intelligent man. People across the business table would often underestimate him. They assumed they were dealing with some sort of backyard yokel but Peter had the measure on them."
Born in the Barossa in 1930, the man who later came to be known as the 'Baron of the Barossa' got his start in the wine industry at Yalumba, where he was hired as an apprentice winemaker in 1947. Lehmann won the International Wine Challenge Lifetime Achievement award in 2009 and was the first Australian wine industry figure to become a Member of the Order of Australia for his contribution to Australian wine.
Lehmann is survived by his wife and collaborator Margaret, his sons David, Philip and Doug, and his daughter Libby.